Liberal arts degrees misunderstood by many

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What can a college graduate do with a liberal arts degree?

Scott Friedhoff, vice president for enrollment at Allegheny College, hears the question so often that he has come up with what he believes to be the perfect answer.

"Anything you want."

Even as more students question the practicality of a liberal arts degree, administrators at large and small schools maintain that the well-rounded education it offers is even more valuable today, when graduates are more likely to switch careers and must be more flexible in their job searches.

Administrators say the issue begins with a misperception among high school students and their parents.

"I don't think many high school students really know what liberal arts is," said Tori Haring-Smith, president of Washington & Jefferson College. "We need to do a better job of explaining because the term is confusing to some people.

"It's an education that teaches students to have the flexibility of mind that allows for a lifelong learning process. It is the most pragmatic education you can get."

A liberal arts curriculum intends to impart a broad base of knowledge and emphasizes critical thinking skills. It is a foundation that will benefit students in the long term, instead of specific career training that only applies to a single vocation, Mr. Friedhoff said.

Some of the confusion stems from the various terminology and curricula colleges and universities use.

Chatham University no longer uses the term "liberal arts" to define its courses, because it can be misleading to students who do not understand what it means, said Laura Armesto, vice president for academic affairs.

Schools like Allegheny College are considered classic liberal arts schools because they only offer liberal arts degrees; there is no business or education major at Allegheny, Mr. Friedhoff said.

But students at large, research-based schools like the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University also can obtain a liberal arts degree, depending on their major.

Popular liberal arts majors include English, psychology and economics. All three are on the Princeton Review's list of the 10 most popular college majors.

Liberal arts students are required to take classes in other subjects, with requirements varying by school.

The breadth of courses Kristen Susany took as an English literature major at Pitt kept her focused. She has hoped to become a teacher since her freshman year, but she still believes her liberal arts degree is more beneficial than a more concentrated major in education.

"I think I would have been bored out of my mind studying education for four years," said Ms. Susany, who graduated in the spring and will enter a one-year teaching program at Pitt this fall.

But sometimes uncertainty can push students toward a major or minor that translates more directly into a career.

Amanda Wilczynski, a junior at CMU, majors in professional writing. She was not sure what she wanted to do when she entered college after graduating from Deer Lakes High School in 2006. She chose the professional writing major for the specific career training it offers.

She has taken classes on writing scientific texts, instructional manuals and grant proposals. This summer, she helped edit a book on leadership skills, and next summer she wants to intern at a publishing house.

But she also studies creative writing and said her dream is to one day write for a television series.

"Getting a job is a big deal," she said. "A lot of people in my generation want that job that's going to make them big money. But at the same time, we don't want to be stuck in a job that we don't like.

"That's why I want to do both ... study something I love but still have a practical skill set."

Carnegie Mellon also offers a technical writing and communication major along with the more traditional English and creative writing degrees. Many schools offer only classes or certificates in professional writing.

But even though some liberal arts students do try to add a major or minor that applies to a specific career, many students who obtain liberal arts degrees as undergraduates continue their education in graduate school.

At Pitt, many students in the liberal arts go to graduate school, although some spend a few years working before they begin studying for a graduate degree.

Dr. Haring-Smith said the liberal arts foundation is perfect for those students because it provides them with the basic skills they need most before they obtain specific job training in graduate school.

For liberal arts administrators, it's frustrating that so many students and parents assume an undergraduate business degree is the best way to succeed as a professional, Dr. Haring-Smith said.

"If you speak to a professor in our business program, they'll tell you that the best thing to do is to get a liberal arts education, enter the work force for a few years, and, once you have the experience, pursue an MBA," she said. "It's the critical thinking you acquire as a liberal arts student that will really stick with you."

Administrators also maintain that employers look for the types of skills that liberal arts programs build.

"We're hearing from employers and graduate schools that what they are looking for [are] individuals who are innovative and big-picture thinkers, who have the ability to change careers and communicate across disciplines," Mr. Friedhoff said. "Those are characteristics of students who receive a liberal arts education."

A recent survey by the American Association of Colleges and Universities reported that 69 percent of business leaders surveyed believe a liberal education is "very important."

But it can still be difficult for those students to find a job after graduation.

Ms. Susany said it was easier for her to choose a career than many of her friends in the English program because she knew exactly what she wanted to do.

"In general, I do think it's harder to find a job as an English major, especially if you just say, 'I'll just go where this takes me,' " Ms. Susany said. "But if you know where you want to go, then you will have more doors open."

Dr. Beeson said it is important for all students to obtain advice on personal and professional goals.

"The students are concerned about their lives after Pitt, and so are we," Dr. Beeson said. "It's not as if we say, once they graduate, 'Bye, see you later.'

"We want them to succeed."

As the liberal arts curricula evolve, most university departments reconsider their course offerings at the end of every school year. But administrators say the foundation remains the same.

Dr. Armesto pointed to Chatham's graphic design program, which she described as a "very applied program," as an example of the persisting values of liberal education.

"That graphic arts student needs to know how to do more than push a button," she said. "They still learn analytical values, they study art composition, art history and design. Basically, they get the best of both worlds."


Sam Allen is an English major at UCLA and was a summer intern at the Post-Gazette.


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